John Steinbeck’s Derry roots

US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John Steinbeck, Nobel prize-winning author visited Derry in August 1952, in search of his roots and this quintessential American knew exactly where his roots lay.

“We were looking for a place called Mulkeraugh. You can spell it half a dozen ways and it isn’t on any map. I knew from half-memory that it was near to Ballykelly, which is near to Limavady, and I knew that from Mulkeraugh you could look across the lough to the hills of Donegal”.

Full details of Steinbeck’s eventful trip to Ireland were recorded in his article ‘I Go Back To Ireland’, which was published in Collier’s Magazine in 1953.

John Steinbeck’s uncle, Joseph Hamilton of Chicago, Illinois, had made the trip back to Ireland in the early 1920s. He “reported that the family was just about played out; there remained two sisters and a brother - Katherine, Elizabeth and Thomas - children of my grandfather’s brother, all old and all unmarried.”

Steinbeck wrote from Derry, on 17 August 1952, to his friend and editor Pascal Covici: “We just got here. We’re on a hunt for the seat of the Hamiltons. The place they are supposed to have lived is not on any map no matter how large scaled but we have found a taxi driver who thinks he knows where it is and tomorrow we start out to try to find it. It should be a very interesting experience. I can’t imagine any of them are still alive since the last I heard of them was fifteen years ago and there were then two old, old ladies and an old, old gentleman and none of them had been married. However, whatever happens it will be a story to tell.” (Source: Steinbeck A Life In Letters edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten.)

Kings and heroes

John Steinbeck was a romantic. As he says in Collier’s: “I guess the people of my family thought of Ireland as a green paradise, mother of heroes, where golden people sprang full-flowered from the sod. I don’t remember my mother actually telling me these things, but she must have given me such an impression of delight. Only kings and heroes came from this Holy Island, and at the very top of the glittering pyramid was our family, the Hamiltons.”

John Steinbeck was, however, not impressed with his hotel accommodation in Derry: “There was no home feeling in the bleak hotel, that carried its own darkness with it. The girl behind the desk would not smile nor pass a cordial word, no matter how much we tried to trap her. In the bar there was no gaiety. I don’t know whether laughter was there before we went in for a drink or after we left, but none was offered for us to share, and curtains of rules brushed against us.”

On the morning of 18 August, John and Elaine Steinbeck set out from their hotel to explore these family roots. They drove right through “Ballykelly without knowing it was there, but at Limavady they turned us back. I guess I had thought of Ballykelly as a town; it isn’t - it’s what they call in Texas a wide place in the road.”

Steinbeck’s classic novel, ‘East of Eden’, (September 1952) was published in the same year he visited the North West. John Steinbeck began writing this novel as a true historical account of his family’s westward migration from New England to California. Although the manuscript quickly became a work of fiction one of the major characters was not disguised, namely Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather.

Samuel Hamilton was born at Ballykelly on 7 October 1830, of parents John Hamilton and Esther Clarke, and baptised in Ballykelly Presbyterian Church. The Hamiltons farmed lands in the townlands of Ballykelly and Mulkeeragh. Samuel emigrated at the age of 17, at the height of the Great Famine, to New York where he married a young Irish girl, Elizabeth Fagan in the summer of 1849.

They came to California and set up a ranch in the foothills of the Salinas Valley.

In Chapter 2 of ‘East of Eden’, John Steinbeck writes: “Young Samuel Hamilton came from the north of Ireland and so did his wife. He was the son of small farmers, neither rich nor poor, who had lived on one landhold and in one stone house for many hundreds of years. The Hamiltons managed to be remarkably well educated and well read; and, as is so often true in that green country, they were connected and related to very great people and very small people, so that one cousin might be a baronet and another cousin a beggar.

“And of course they were descended from the ancient kings of Ireland, as every Irish man is.”

The process by which Samuel Hamilton acquired his ranch in the Salinas Valley was also described in ‘East of Eden’: “When Samuel and Liza came to the Salinas Valley all the level land was taken, the rich bottoms, the little fertile creases in the hills, the forests, but there was still marginal land to be homesteaded... “

Taking a quarter-section for himself, his wife and his subsequent children, the ranch eventually grew to almost two-thousand acres.


Samuel Hamilton saw himself as a frontiersman and pioneer and the Hamilton farm became a vital part of Steinbeck’s personal life story, appearing many times in his fiction. Steinbeck spent a lot of time there as a child. Samuel Hamilton didn’t look back towards his roots in Ireland. As it says in Chapter 5 of ‘East of Eden’: “He was a busy man. He had no time for nostalgia. The Salinas Valley was the world.”

Samuel Hamilton’s youngest daughter Olive qualified as a teacher aged 17 and married John Ernst Steinbeck, of King City, in San Francisco on December 22, 1890. John Steinbeck, their son, was born at Salinas on February 27, 1902.

In some respects John Steinbeck ventured to Derry two years too late; the Hamilton connection with Mulkeeragh had ended two years previously with the death of Mary Elizabeth (Minnie) Hamilton, aged 84, on February 11, 1950 (Minnie was the daughter of Samuel Hamilton’s brother, William John Hamilton, and Jane Ritchie). In a photograph in Collier’s John Steinbeck can be seen crouching beside the two Hamilton headstones in the graveyard of Tamlaghtfinlagan Parish Church, Ballykelly, with the elegant, Gothic, church looming above.

In 2002, Mrs Rosemary Graham (a direct descendant of Samuel Hamilton’s sister, Elizabeth) of Dunmurry, Belfast contacted me. As a child she had spent school holidays, with her brother Jackie, on the Hamilton farm at Mulkeeragh. Mrs Graham held in her possession a 1922 letter sent to her, when she was only nine years old, from Kate Hamilton in Ballykelly. She also held a letter from December 1952, from Limavady solicitor, S.N. Kyle, which contained her legacy of £20 from the estate of Minnie Hamilton.

The former Hamilton farm at Mulkeeragh, on the fringes of Ballykelly, is approached by the lane which leads to Mulkeeragh Wood from Tully Road. As you walk up this lane, from Tully Road, towards Mulkeeragh Wood, the Hamilton farm was on your left hand side.

As John Steinbeck eloquently concludes in Collier’s: “And that’s the seat of my culture and the origin of my being and the soil of my background, the one full-blown evidence of a thousand years of family.”